The Purpose of the Church (David O. McKay Lesson 3)

The Church-Its Nature and Purpose

Even as the Lord God is known by many names and identified in numerous ways, all to the end that men may know more about him and his laws, so it is with his church. Through the ages the prophetic word has described, identified, and named the Lord's people in various ways, all of which, viewed and analyzed in their proper settings, throw a wondrous flood of light on the nature and purpose of the Church. And yet, be it remembered, there is but one true and living God and one true and saving church.

1. The Church Is the Organized Body of True Believers
Our Lord's church, the one true church. . .is an organized body of true believers. It is a formal and official organization with prescribed officers, defined units, approved doctrines, and authorized ordinances. Its ministers are endowed with power from on high; they hold the holy priesthood, and they are empowered to act in the place and stead of the Lord Jesus. Miracles and gifts of the Spirit always abound within its folds; and it always bears the name of that Lord whose church it is.

Above all else, the church is the Lord's. He establishes it; he directs its affairs; he gives it to whomsoever he will; and he takes it from unworthy hands. Man can accept a divine invitation to join the Lord's organization. He can by full obedience gain all the blessings that flow therefrom. But he cannot alter, amend, change, add to, diminish from, or improve upon that which the Lord, whose church it is, has himself arranged. If at any time man assumes any of these prerogatives, he thereby runs counter to the divine will, the Spirit of the Lord withdraws, and the realigned and rearranged church becomes the church of a man. It is no longer the Lord's church.

2. The Church Administers the Gospel
Priesthood is the power of God; where we are concerned, it is the power and authority of God delegated to man on earth to act in all things for the salvation of men. The gospel, so administered, is the plan of salvation; it includes all that is needed to save and exalt men in the highest heaven. And the church is the organization that houses, regulates, controls, and administers the gospel and makes its blessings available to men. Gospel truths, doctrines, ordinances, gifts, and powers are offered to the world through the church. They are available to those who repent and are baptized and receive the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit; they are available, in their saving fulness, to the members of the church. Thus the church is the organization through which salvation is made available to man.

And thus the priesthood, the gospel, and the church go hand in hand. Indeed, that Lord whose church it is defines his church in these words: "Behold, this is my doctrine-whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church." The church consists of those who believe the gospel, repent of their sins, and accept baptism under the hands of the legal administrators who represent the Lord. And thus it is that faithful members of the church are saved.

3. The Church Is Eternal and Everlasting
The gospel, the priesthood, and the church are everlasting, eternal, unending. They have and do and will exist in all worlds, in all ages, everlastingly. Like God himself, they are without beginning and without end. As to the gospel, it is the gospel of the galaxies; it is the everlasting gospel; it is the eternal plan of salvation. As to the priesthood, it has existed with God from all eternity; it is the very power of God; by it the worlds were made and souls are saved. As to the church, it is the Lord's organized system of administration; it has existed in all dispensations; it is organized in heaven above and on the earth beneath. What we have here is patterned after what gods and angels have there.

4. Zion Is the Church
In the meridian of time and in our day, the Lord calls his people saints because they are of one heart and one mind, and dwelling in righteousness, they are one with the saints beyond the veil. The latter-day saints as well as former-day saints forsake the world and gather to Zion, or in other words they join the church, for Zion is the church. Those who are thus gathered into the fold of Christ are the pure in heart, becoming thus when their sins are washed away in the waters of baptism.

As the saints in Enoch's day built the City of Zion-a City of Holiness, a place of refuge from the carnality of the world-so the saints in our day are organized into stakes of Zion. These stakes are part of the church structure, and all who forsake the world and who seek to be one with those of Enoch's day gather into the stakes of Zion, where they find refuge from the carnality and evils of the world.

5. Israel Is the Church
Ancient Israel was a nation, a kingdom, and a church all wrapped in one. Moses in his day was the prophet, seer, and revelator; Aaron was the presiding bishop; the twelve princes of Israel, one heading each of the tribes, held an equivalent status to that of the Twelve whom Jesus chose; and the seventy elders, who with Moses and Aaron saw the Lord, were what we would call the First Quorum of the Seventy. There were elders and judges (bishops) and other officers, presiding, as circumstances warranted, over tens and fifties and hundreds and thousands. Israel operated as a theocracy, as a congregation of the Lord's people, as a church.

When we speak thus of Israel, we are not speaking of all of the literal seed of Jacob who are Israel, but of those who were true and faithful. We are speaking of those "Israelites," as Paul identified them, "to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises." Rebellious descendants of Jacob were excommunicated anciently as they are today. Hence, in Paul's language, "they are not all Israel, which are of Israel. . . . That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God." (Romans 9:4-8.)

6. Jehovah's Fold Is His Church
No better imagery could have been devised for pastoral Israel than to refer to the Lord's church among them as the sheepfold of Jehovah. Those in the sheepfold were safe from the wolves of sin and preserved from the deserts of thirst. Within the fold they fed in green pastures and drank from the still waters because Jehovah was their Shepherd. Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. Peter called Christ the Chief Shepherd. Truly, in his church, we find the sheep of the Lord's pasture being fed true doctrine and being watered at the wells of righteousness.

7. The Church Is the Kingdom of God on Earth
The church of the living God is not a democracy; its laws are not made by men; its doctrines are not devised in conferences and conclaves. The church is a kingdom; it is God's kingdom. . .and as such is designed to prepare men for an inheritance in the kingdom of God in heaven, which is the celestial kingdom. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Eternal King; his representative on earth is the President of the church.

Laws and doctrines and officers and forms of administration and standards of judgment and all else come to the church from the Eternal King by the voice of the one who heads his work on earth.

"Where there is no kingdom of God there is no salvation." Without the church, man cannot be saved. "What constitutes the kingdom of God?" What constitutes the church of Christ? "Where there is a prophet, a priest, or a righteous man unto whom God gives His oracles, there is the kingdom of God; and where the oracles of God are not, there the kingdom of God is not."

"Whenever men can find out the will of God and find an administrator legally authorized from God, there is the kingdom of God; but where these are not, the kingdom of God is not. All the ordinances, systems, and administrations on earth are of no use to the children of men, unless they are ordained and authorized of God; for nothing will save a man but a legal administrator; for none others will be acknowledged either by God or angels." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 271-72, 274.)

8. The Church Bears the Name of Christ
Before the church was organized again among men in these last days, the Lord said to the Prophet [Joseph]: "If you shall build up my church, upon the foundation of my gospel and my rock, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you."

"Take upon you the name of Christ, and speak the truth in soberness." No one can belong to the church unless and until he takes upon him the name of the One whose church it is. "And as many as repent and are baptized in my name, which is Jesus Christ, and endure to the end, the same shall be saved." Repentance and baptism are the gate to that strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life. "Behold, Jesus Christ is the name which is given of the Father, and there is none other name given whereby man can be saved; wherefore, all men must take upon them the name which is given of the Father, for in that name shall they be called at the last day; wherefore, if they know not the name by which they are called, they cannot have place in the kingdom of my Father." (D&C 18:5, 21-25.)

9. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
We have taken upon ourselves the name of Christ; it is in his name we are called in these last days, and we know that his is the only name given under heaven whereby salvation comes. We have joined his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This church is the kingdom of God on earth. It administers the gospel and is in turn administered by the Holy Priesthood. It is "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth." (D&C 1:30.) It is the one place where salvation is found, where the fulness of the everlasting gospel is taught in plainness and perfection, and where there are legal administrators who have power to seal men up unto eternal life.

This kingdom-because it is the Lord's and because it is true-shall roll forward and increase in size and influence until it fills the whole earth, until every living soul on earth is embraced within its fold. This consummation, devoutly to be desired and zealously sought for by the faithful, shall come to pass when that Lord whose church it is comes to reign personally upon the earth with his saints for a thousand years. Until that day, we shall go forward as best we can, living the gospel, gathering the elect, and saving the righteous.

10. The Church of the Firstborn
The Church of the Firstborn is the church among exalted beings in the highest heaven of the celestial world. It is the church among those for whom the family unit continues in eternity. In a sense it is the inner circle within the Lord's church on earth.

The purpose of the church on earth is to prepare us for an inheritance in the church in heaven. Those who so obtain, having overcome all things, shall pass by the angels and the gods and enter into their exaltation. "They are they who are the church of the Firstborn. They are they into whose hands the Father has given all things-"(D&C 76: 54-55).

Victor L. Ludlow, Principles and Practices of the Restored Gospel, 558-575.

A Divine Mission

Business firms and service organizations often develop a statement of purpose, a motto, or a mission declaration. More than a catchy slogan or a commercial jingle, a mission statement defines objectives and gives value to the efforts of the group. This expression of intent is usually printed, circulated, and discussed by the leaders and members of the group. The members then focus and unify their efforts to achieve its stated aims. Families and individuals who desire a fulfilling life also need some personal expectations or a type of "mission statement" to help them achieve success.

Similarly, as God's spirit children work together in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they need an understanding of the organization's mission so they can best direct their collective effort in returning to God's presence.

The Church's mission statement as we now know it was first outlined in a series of statements made by President Spencer W. Kimball. He combined two of the three elements together in a general conference talk delivered on April 1, 1978. He indicated that most Church members were aware of the modern prophets' "intense interest in the missionary work . . . and the appeals we have made in many lands for the rededication to preaching the gospel and . . . the good news of the restoration to the people everywhere. . . . I feel the same sense of urgency about temple work for the dead as I do about missionary work for the living, since they are basically one and the same."

Three years later, again in an April general conference address, President Kimball introduced the threefold mission of the Church for the first time. He said:

"My brothers and sisters, as the Brethren of the First Presidency and the Twelve have meditated upon and prayed about the great latter-day work the Lord has given us to do, we are impressed that the mission of the Church is threefold:

  1. To proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people
  2. ;
  3. To perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation
  4. ;
  5. To redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth"
  6. .
Obviously the General Authorities had spent much effort and prayer in preparing this concise but comprehensive statement. Some of their inspiration undoubtedly came from the New Testament and the emphasis given to these same principles by the Savior and his apostles of old.

Note that all three of these Church purposes (sharing the gospel, helping one another, and performing salvation ordinances for others) direct us in accomplishing what seems to be Heavenly Father's own "mission statement" as recorded by Moses centuries ago. God the Father stated that his work and glory was "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." (Moses 1:39.)

Keys Restored in the Latter Days for the Church's Mission

Essential elements of the Church's mission statement are found in the revelations and angelic manifestations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Kirtland Temple in April 1836. At that time, three prophetic figures from past gospel dispensations returned to earth to impart special keys to the prophet of the restoration. These three ancient prophets were Moses, Elias, and Elijah.

Moses and Missionary Work
After a glorious appearance of the Savior himself, the Prophet Joseph Smith records, "The heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north." (D&C 110:11.)

The keys of divine authorization and priesthood power that the Prophet received from Moses restored authority to perform true missionary work. Moses was the keeper of these keys because he was the ancient prophet who gathered the Israelites out of the wicked world. Moses was the steward for the House of Israel within God's plan. After directing the first gathering of Israel to their promised land. . . he gave the keys for this final gathering to Joseph Smith. Today, authorized missionaries gather the scattered remnants of Israel from nearly every country on earth into the congregations and stakes of Zion. The commission to preach the gospel to every nation and people was reiterated in modern revelation. (See D&C 58:9, 64; 133:7-8, 37.) The promise has been given that all the world will have the opportunity to hear the gospel as this part of the Church's mission is fulfilled.

Elias and the Blessings of Abraham
After Moses' visitation, the Prophet Joseph records that "Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed." (D&C 110:12.) The scriptures reveal little about the mortal life and ministry of Elias, but he apparently lived in the days of Abraham and Melchizedek, two role models of faithful and righteous living. Abraham was a noble patriarch, a man of faith and an obedient follower of God. Melchizedek, as his name "king of righteousness" declares, was the king of Salem and an exemplary high priest of God.

Moses reviews the dispensation of Abraham in Genesis, enumerating three great blessings promised to Abraham: (1) he would have a numberless posterity, (2) his posterity would be heirs to a certain land, including Palestine and neighboring areas, and (3) through his descendants, all families of the earth would be blessed. (See Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-7.)

The first and third of these promises were mentioned by Elias as he conferred the keys of Abraham's dispensation upon Joseph Smith-the promise of posterity and the blessings of future generations through this posterity. Abraham's descendants among Church members in this dispensation increase their numbers as they rear their families in the gospel, and they bless other families as they share their gifts and efforts in blessing others.

The gospel that God gave to Abraham and that Elias restored was the promise that the blessings of truth and the priesthood would come from Abraham's posterity to the whole earth. The great patriarch's ancient responsibility, then, was to engrain in his children the gospel truths, their covenant relationship with God, and their responsibility to righteous examples. In the latter days, too, the fundamental duty of Church members is to rear their children under the Abrahamic covenant-teaching them correct principles, helping them make sacred covenants, and encouraging them to live exemplary lives. In addition, as brothers and sisters in the gospel, we are to help one another as we teach, serve, and strengthen fellow Saints through our individual efforts and Church callings. A central principle in the gospel is that by serving others, one can progress closer to perfection. In essence, we help perfect each other.

Elijah and the Sealing Powers
Joseph Smith recorded that after Elias delivered his keys, one more angelic visitor appeared to him and Oliver Cowdery in the temple: "Another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi-testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come-to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse." (D&C 110:13-15.)

Elijah's latter-day mission, Joseph later wrote, was to "restore the authority and deliver the keys of the Priesthood, in order that all the ordinances may be attended to in righteousness." The most important key is the power to seal generations of families together through sacred ordinances. If we fail to perform the sealing ordinances for our ancestors in the temple, we are cut off from them, and the Abrahamic covenant is not perpetuated through them to us. Instead of the whole earth being blessed and united through Abraham's seed, it would be cursed, and the chosen seed would be scattered and lost.

Significantly, Elijah, the bearer of the sealing keys, never "tasted death" but was preserved by God to fulfill important missions on the earth that would bless both those living in the flesh and those in the postmortal spirit world. For the Lord there is no barrier between the world of the physically living and the world of those spirits living on after their physical bodies have died. He has provided keys so that mortals now living on earth, the spirits of our deceased ancestors, and the souls of those yet unborn will eventually form a continuous family-sealed together through ordinances performed by the living in holy temples.

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